Isn't "high energy" a genetic thing? As a medical doctor specializing in aging and regenerative medicine, I get this question a lot. And it does seem like high energy levels are a part of certain people's personality or DNA, doesn't it? But in reality, energy comes from our mitochondria—the small energy factories in our cells that produce ATP. So even if we inherit a given amount of mitochondria, there's no reason to think that we cannot produce more and have less mitochondrial death as we age. There's also no reason to think we cannot increase the energy (ATP) production of the mitochondria we already have, either. How do we do this? By supporting our mitochondria and energy levels through targeted diet and lifestyle changes.
What exactly are mitochondria?
Mitochondrial cells are like little batteries that produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the cellular fuel your body uses for all activities. Mitochondria are found throughout the human body, but there are whopping concentrations of them in your muscles, brain, and heart. If you can max out the number of mitochondria you have and the amount of ATP they produce, your brain will be super-focused, your athletic performance will peak, and your energy will be boundless. Sounds like a great way to live, doesn't it?
As we age, we should be replacing old, dying-off mitochondria with new ones. This process is called mitochondrial biogenesis, and it's crucial for "vibrant aging." If we're sick or growing older and have mitochondrial apoptosis (die-off) without biogenesis, we have increasingly lower energy levels and will develop medical problems. When this situation occurs, we also have less ATP production and as a result, we get one big mitochondrial mess.
What happens when mitochondria aren't producing enough energy?
Mitochondrial dysfunction is defined by one (or all) of the following: increased apoptosis, decreased biogenesis, and decreased ATP production. We often see this as a function of aging and chronic diseases, but it isn't a "natural part of aging" to be less energetic. Fatigue means that your mitochondria need a boost! This makes even more sense when you learn that in chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and mold-toxin-caused chronic inflammatory response syndrome—all illnesses characterized by fatigue—mitochondrial dysfunction is pre-eminent.
Mitochondrial "issues" can also cause or exacerbate other symptoms of chronic disease. That's right, everything including Alzheimer's disease, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disease, cancer, and even some psychiatric diseases like autism have been linked to mitochondrial sluggishness. Studies have been performed extensively on many disease states and improving mitochondrial health and function clearly improves the disease process and the health of those with the studied disorders.
How do I know if my mitochondria are healthy?
It's likely you already know that oxidative stress and inflammation are bad for your health, but do you know why exactly? Well, one way is by damaging your mitochondria. Inadequate exercise, poor-quality sleep, insufficient nutrients, and stress can also negatively affect your mitochondria. In addition, we need to consider toxins. Toxins are becoming increasingly recognized as a health issue with more and more studies linking fungicides to the evolution of mycotoxin (mold toxin) illness and some herbicides to cancers and other illnesses. Our homes—and sadly our world—is full of toxins, but we can do something about them; it just takes a little effort. Eating organic, non-GMO foods, and using filtered water are easy first steps. Using nontoxic cleaning products and personal care products is also crucial.
Can you eat to optimize mitochondrial health?
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet is the first thing to do to improve mitochondrial function. Polyphenol-rich foods help to increase the health of your mitochondria directly, and indirectly by supporting a healthy gut microbiome. These foods are naturally purple, red, or blue. Many fresh green foods are also high in healthy mitochondrial-boosting polyphenols. Beverages such as real (non-tea-bag) green tea and organic coffee are loaded with healthy polyphenols as well. Avoid guar gum and carrageenan, which are ingredients in some brands of coconut and almond milk, if you want healthy mitochondria.
What type of exercise supports mitochondrial health?
Many types of exercise are wonderful for your mitochondria including walking, jogging, and weight training. However, scientists are discovering that the best type of exercise for your mitochondria is high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. Basic HIIT is super easy to do if you have access to a track, gym, or a swimming pool. Go "all out" for 30 to 45 seconds and then rest for about one minute and repeat. At first, time these intervals, but eventually I encourage you to tune into your body. This way you'll learn what it feels like to go full-out and then feel recovered enough to go full-out again. If you are out of shape, the HIIT interval might last only 15 to 20 seconds at first, and you may need two minutes in between to catch your breath.
HIIT on a track:
Run half of a lap at full speed and then slow walk for half a lap. Make sure you are able to catch your breath before running full-out again. Do this two to three times if you're just getting started and then when fully trained, do this six times in a row, about five times per week.
HIIT in a pool:
Dive in if you can; the cold shock is great for your mitochondria. Then swim full-out for what is usually three laps. Float on your back until you are breathing normally (about a minute) and then do it again. Repeat as instructed above.
HIIT at the gym:
Set the timer on your phone or use a friend or trainer to time you on a bike, rower, or treadmill. Go full-out then slowly catch your breath and repeat about six times in a row, five times each week.
Note: You should avoid this if you have an illness that causes fatigue. In addition, if you are not used to exercising, you are over 40 years old, or if you have any cardiac risk factors, you need medical clearance to start any exercise program.